The Attitude Shift Part I: Why Attitude Matters in College

It was the great motivational speaker, Zig Ziglar who said, “Your attitude, not your aptitude, will determine your altitude.” I don’t wholly agree with him. Rather than dismissing aptitude as Ziglar does, I believe that your attitude plays a different role in the success equation. Here’s an important point that I will return to later: your attitude precedes your aptitude. In other words, you can become smarter by applying yourself in a certain way. Consequently, I would modify Mr. Ziglar’s quote in an inelegant way, “Your attitude, which influences your aptitude, will determine your altitude.”

In my years as a college administrator, I noticed that the top students ultimately react in a different way to the crisis of confidence than the student who ultimately does poorly or drops out.  That top student realized the approach he or she used in high school was no longer working for him or her, and they decided to change their approach. They were not afraid to learn from the best, to ask questions, or to model their behavior after those who were excelling. Their mindset said to themselves, “I must get better and I will.”

The less successful student also makes a decision, but this decision is more fatal. The student who doesn’t respond well to the crisis of confidence moments gets overwhelmed by it. If allowed to fester without any intervention, this student will begin to put in less effort and seek out others who are struggling as much as they are. It almost happens organically that they form a posse. Rather than partnering with someone who is doing well (doing so would be considered an indictment on his or her abilities), they link up with others who are also struggling. This posse masks their own sense of self-doubt. These are new friends who accept mediocrity, and poor performance becomes a point of celebration, rather than shame.

In a subsequent blog, I’ll write about some specific strategies that will prove helpful, especially for quantitative courses such as math, chemistry, and physics. For this posting, allow me to focus on mindset–the first shift– because doing better in college begins with your attitude.

I struggled with confidence during my freshman year in college. My roommate was private school-educated and had a strong background in chemistry and literature. I, on the other hand, went to public schools, albeit a magnet high school, but never had chemistry or biology, and was never called upon to write a paper longer than a few pages until that year. The work seemed to come easily for my roommate, and so he spent a fair amount of time watching television in our shared room. Ultimately, I started to study in the library after I realized that my high school study strategies weren’t working for me. I had to get away from the dormitory distractions including my roommate’s television.

But just like the fabled story of the tortoise and the hare (I was the tortoise, and he was the hare), he eventually faltered in college. In fact, he was asked to take time off after he was put on academic probation. He never returned.

I realized that his early months in college were so easy because he had covered the early coursework in high school, and so he slacked off. When new material came along, he struggled. He was one of those students who always did well and who tied his success with smartness. When he no longer had success, rather than decoupling belief in his “smartness” from his performance and trying to figure out a new strategy like I did, he retreated from the work and started to unravel academically because he began to question his smartness. And like the proverbial tortoise, I learned how to plod along, daily, consistently, in a focused approach that ultimately helped me win the race. He wasn’t smarter than me; he just had a stronger background.

No quote captures the essence of what I’m trying to convey better than William James, who said, “It is our attitude at the beginning of a difficult task which, more than anything else, will affect its successful outcome.” Your attitude precedes your actions, which in turn affects what you accomplish. Albert Bandura, who has published volumes of research on confidence and self-efficacy, says it this way, “What people think, believe, and feel affects how they behave.”  If you can align your attitude, you can get your behavior in line as well.

In the next few postings, I’ll address two attitudes that have had a profound effect on the behavior and performance of students with whom I’ve worked. The first is how they view their intelligence, and the second is their level of confidence (their self-efficacy). The attitudes are linked to each other, and to how you perform in college and I’ll show you how. Watch this space!